KENT KNAPP was 19 when he took up the ancient trade of blacksmithing, transforming wrought iron into beautiful art pieces as well as conventional daily items such as iron hooks and driveway gates. Ten years ago, Knapp jumped at the opportunity to open his own blacksmith store in Milwaukee’s Third Ward in a single-story white building, naming it the Milwaukee Blacksmith.
A sixth generation Milwaukeean — he has the word of the city tattooed on his right forearm — Knapp, his wife Shannon and their six kids (Zoe Rae, Miles, Birdie, Oscar, Dharma and Tashi), had always been enamored with the profession because of its rich history.
The family or ‘Knappkins’ as they call themselves are starring in the new History reality show Milwaukee Blacksmith, which premieres on March 23 on History (Astro channel 555 and 575 HD).
At Milwaukee Blacksmith, Knapp, who is also the chief blacksmith, works alongside his three sons, his oldest daughter and his wife. As Knapp finishes up a job on his 135-year-old anvil, he constantly looks up for new clients to make sure that his family of eight is taken care of.
Once considered a dying craft, blacksmithing is slowly making a comeback, particularly in the United States. “We’ve seen a resurgency of blacksmith in the US more than it probably did a hundred years ago. It’s a craft that goes back to thousands of years,” says Knapp in a recent phone interview from his home in Milwaukee.
Although the process of heating the iron, beating and bending them into custom metal works for their customers remains pretty much the same over the years, the trade has also benefitted from recent technological advancements. “We use hydraulics for presses and punches work. We also use a power hammer that can strike many times harder than any man could. And in a lot of times, we use sharp cut welding and plasma cutting which in turn helps increase productivity,” he says.
Despite the long hours spent in forging each metal item, Knapp says he enjoys all the hard work that goes into it. “Any blacksmith will spend hours, if not days perfecting their artwork.
“At the end of the process, you take a step back and admire your own work and just let that sense of awe washes over you,” says the 45-year-old, who was once a successful musician. He has played the bass professionally alongside world renowned artistes such as Cyril Neville, Earl King, Bo Diddley and Buddy Miles.
Milwaukee Blacksmith airs every Thursday at 10pm on History (Astro channel 555 and 575 HD), beginning March 23.